Were I a rich man, I would propagate all kinds of trees that will grow in the open air. A greenhouse is childish. I would introduce foreign animals into the county; for instance the reindeer. — Samuel Johnson
Suppose a man, disillusioned with society, were to pack his bags and flee that society for the hills, until he arrived in the forest; suppose that this man made a nice little hovel for himself to live in, digging and scraping his existence, until he created a new Society of One in the woods; suppose, then, that this man decided one day to inquire of the trees his intrusion. I suppose those trees would trounce on him immediately. “Sir,” they would say, “We very much hate your presence; you are a nuisance.” I suppose that if those same trees could walk they would squash him immediately, especially if he tried to give them a hug. Now, I could not flee to the forest if I wanted to, for lack of trees here. If I walked to the nearest wood, I would most assuredly give up the ghost on the way. Even if I did arrive—if any of us arrived at the wood—we would all perish within a week if not by Wednesday. There might be nothing more obnoxious that a man telling you to pay homage to, even to sacrifice your life for, a tyrant. A human giving up his humanity for the forest is no different than a Christian giving up his Christianity for Nero. But to say Nature is tyrannical is not to say that she is not lovable. And to say that she is lovable is not to say that I have to hug her.
I have been noticing a queer fact about a few of the trees recently. There might be certain, scientific explanations for what I’ve noticed, but I care not for such explanations. Go ahead and give me your science; I will give you my mysticism! I will write a bad poem. For when I gaze upon a tree at Freedom Park, near my hovel, I can’t help but notice that these trees (fruit trees of some sort, I gather) do not shoot straight up like your everyday tree. Perhaps I have been palling around with palms for too long now, but some of these trees barely make it five or six feet out of the ground before they start shooting over to San Diego or San Francisco, as if setting off for the sea. I do not mean to say they always shoot west. Some are so gnarled and gangly, Medusa’s head might be buried beneath. But, whatever the direction, trees ought not randomly sway halfway through their trunk, as if leaning on a fencepost and staring at the sunset. One almost wonders if they are leaning over to listen in to the rest of the trees in the grove.
We had a few trees like this, I suppose, back in Kansas. The grove of Walnut Trees on Kansas State’s campus all lean to hear the organ of the university religious center. And I can’t blame them for wanting to hear such a noble instrument. But these trees here make little logical sense; we have no organs here. I imagine the tall strait ones are giving the orders; the leaning ones are listening and preparing for action.
That is the other thing about it. The tall, straight trees—palms, primarily—have no roots. In fact, many of the trees here have no roots, that is, no roots that shot up out of the ground. When rambling around campus at UNLV, I cannot help but notice that the trees look placed. It is as if a group of giants have come through during the evening and thrown their toothpicks at random. It is as if some large, underground porcupine woke up and stretched too far only to get stuck. It is a wonder to me at any rate that the trees stay where they are and don’t get blown away by the wind. They look as if they were born full-grown, as if all of that majestic root-ness that accompanies natural growth was done away with. They look anything but intimidating. I know a few cottonwoods and oaks that would have them for dinner—or use them as toothpicks.
Having recently moved to Vegas, I question with men before me whether city-life or rural-life is preferable. Johnson and Chesterton loved London like they loved life; Wordsworth and Thoreau were more pastoral. As with any of these debates, we quickly recognize that the answer is both. A field of corn is prettier than a graffiti-laced building; a man does not experience the mass of humanity in a field like he does in the metropolis.
While I’m scurrying around this place like any other ant, I often forget the deeply spiritual nature of everything around me. It is easy to contemplate a man’s soul; it is difficult to contemplate a man’s ears. So I forget that the trees here were placed; their physical presence nearly presumes a spiritual truth—that Someone thought these things up. That a being actually thought of that tree! Reality! What curious facts surround us! They tell us there are nine-thousand genders. Two will do just fine, thank you; I don’t even understand the female. I say, the contemplation of mere fact ought to be a regular ritual for me.
I think we modern, American Christians are often a bit confused on what to do with the trees. We’ve got people out their hugging and fawning all over them, while lumberjack Joe is trying to shave the world bald to build his barber shop. I wouldn’t be the first to say that virtue is somewhere in the middle; I wouldn’t be the first to say that virtue is a little bit of both without either extreme. The proper end of man is certainly not to discard his humanity and be one with the trees; that is stupid suicide. I say we would be silly not to cut down a few trees for they make lovely tables. But if we are going to cut a few down, might we stop for a few seconds and write their epitaphs for them? We’ve allowed criminals a few last words, why not the innocent trees?
I’m not sure how moral the point is I’m making, but if I turn from the grove to the grocer I see the same thing. I use trees; I do not contemplate them. I use grocers; I do not contemplate them—those men who stack the melons so neatly and make sure no bad apple spoils the bunch. They are the new gods of the new garden:
The nectarine, and the curious peach
Into their hands themselves do reach.
If then, these gods grace my presence I imagine I ought to act a bit differently. If these talking trees that surround me in all colors, shapes, and sizes are eternal gods placed here by a jolly giant, I imagine I ought to give them my daily sacrifice. I can, at the very least, do them some good; and perhaps the little daily good I do them will have eternal value. It cannot hurt to contemplate the fact of man; it cannot hurt to do good to the fact of man; it can hurt to hug a tree, specially if we hug too hard. For we do not know if we are hugging a tree or the sword of Cyclops.
Written at the Desert Schooner,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Early November, 2015
Painting: “Cocoanut Palms on the Coast near Galle, Ceylon”
By Marianne North,
Oil on board, 1877
*The only excuse for this essay is that I have been reading a lot of Thoreau lately, as well as Wendell Berry’s “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” which I don’t completely agree with but find interesting nonetheless.